A Personal Narrative of Rwanda’s History
By Brooke Hartman
Well, hello there! So you’re interested in learning about Rwanda’s history? Great! Have a seat, pour a cup of something hot (or cold?), and let’s chat! I’d love to share some of Rwanda’s history, as I understand it from interviews, memorial sites, and literature.
Centuries before colonization, the country was united under a kingship rule: one people, one language, one history, one king.
But then, although Rwanda was already Rwanda, Germans showed up in 1895 and said, “Yep. This looks good,” then claimed the land. After WWI, the League of Nations said, “Uhh… nope,” took the land from the Germans and gave it to the Belgians. Belgium was granted governance of the land and maintained a colonial occupation in the country until Rwanda’s independence in 1962.
Benefits of colonization: Schooling, medicine, infrastructure, export markets and Christianity.
Drawback of colonization: The institution of a primary identity to all Rwandans by the Germans and reinforced by the Belgians.
Rwandans were categorized by height, facial structure and socioeconomic status (i.e. how many cows a person has) and given an identity that applied to the current generation and his descendants. There is some controversy about how closely the Hutu and Tutsi are related. The memorial book from the museum in Kigali says, “In 1932, anyone with ten cows was a Tutsi, and anyone with less than 10 cows was a Hutu, and this also applied to his descendants.” What isn’t disputed is that the European colonizers blew these differences way out of proportion for their own gain. Belgian authorities then introduced physical ID cards, and each person’s imposed identity began to determine his opportunities. The 15% Tutsi were perceived as elite, and the 85% Hutu as disadvantaged.
The key here is perceived, because although many Tutsi were in power thanks to a purposeful promotion of Tutsi leaders by the Belgian authorities, only a minority of Tutsi actually received direct benefit from elevated status. Still, discrimination was already internalized, Hutu felt oppressed and resentment grew. When the second-to-last king died in the late 1950s, massacres of Tutsi were organized and thousands were killed or fled the country.
A year later, with pressure from the colonial powers to democratize, Rwanda held its first elections in 1961, and the Hutu majority elected Prime Minister Kayibanda, founder of the first party for the emancipation of the Hutu. Rwanda gained independence a year later in 1962. Now. Emancipation and independence sound good, right?
Unfortunately, as one friend in Rwanda put it, “Just because the rest of the world is ready for democracy doesn’t mean our country was ready to handle majority power.”
Because the power had shifted into the hands of the Hutu, Rwanda became a repressive single-party system intent on ethnic cleansing of Tutsis. Between the 1950s and 1970s, 700,000 Tutsi were exiled from the country—they were forced off their land and farms, lost their jobs and bank accounts and animals, and were denied peaceful attempts to return to their country.
A group of exiles joined together in bordering countries to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded the country in 1990 for the purpose of reclaiming the land that was rightfully theirs and to re-establish equal rights. President Habyarimana, who had taken control of the country in the 70s during a coup, used this “invasion” to instill fear in the Hutu majority (“See?! They’re attacking us!”). He and his regime used the radio, newspapers and TV to issue a propaganda campaign aimed at persuading the Hutu majority to see their compatriots, their neighbors, even their own families, as power-hungry enemies who were planning a secret war against the Hutu. Civil war erupted, and again, many Tutsi fled after intense discrimination — unjust jailing, unequal opportunities, and waves of massacres in different sections of the country.
Here is an example of the propaganda used
The Hutu Ten Commandments
In 1993, a peace agreement was signed between the Rwandan Government and the RPF trying to establish equality. A neutral force was to be deployed (the French) to assist Rwanda in their plan to integrate, demobilize and disarm. Refugees were allowed home, and an RPF battalion was established in the capitol city. President H and his extremists saw this, though, as a surrender to the RPF, and they weren’t very happy about it.
Meanwhile (nothing good comes from this phrase) President Habyarimana entered into the largest-ever Rwandan arms deal with a French company for $12 million with a loan guaranteed by the French government. Whaaa?!
While the propaganda was working to convince the Hutu that the Tutsi were out to get them, in reality, a secret war was being planned by the Hutu against the Tutsi. A group called the Interahamwe had been training in Rwandan army camps, and the training was taking place at a rate of about 300 people per week. The group was also registering all Tutsi in every city—literally names and addresses on a piece of paper—for an extermination plan. Weapons were being provided by places like South Africa, and training was facilitated by—guess who? The French Army.
And all of this was pre-genocide!
On April 6th 1994, at 8:23p, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on its approach to Kigali City airport, and it’s widely understood that the Interahamwe staged the shooting and blamed it on the Tutsi, telling the country: If they can kill our president, they can do anything! So. Plane went down at about 8:30p, and by 9:15p roadblocks were in place and houses were being searched. The shooting started by 9:30p with death lists prepared in advance… The genocide was instant. Roadblocks were the primary method of control. No one could pass without a Hutu ID card.
The government used the school and churches to lure people out of hiding under the pretense of safety, then locked people inside and killed them. Hundreds of thousands died inside the walls of these “safe places.”
The structured genocide lasted for 100 days and almost 1 million Tutsi and Hutu moderates were killed. Although the RPF was able to establish control in Kigali in July 1994, attacks from Hutu insurgents continued for years after. Friends told us they didn’t feel entirely secure in Rwanda until 2000 or 2001.
Many of the perpetrators fled the country, but the ones who were captured were tried and jailed. Between 2004-2005, because the jails were overcrowded, about 40,000 perpetrators who had confessed to their crimes were released from jail back to the community through Gacaca courts (tribal courts), a village-based system designed to promote justice and healing at the same time. Through reconciliation work and the Gacaca courts, many offenders have sought forgiveness from the survivors and their families and are making efforts to amend by building houses, harvesting and processing their crops, etc. Even more unbelievable are the survivors who offer forgiveness freely and who accept this gesture in the name of the forgiveness they themselves received through Christ.
The current President Kagame was elected in 2003, re-elected in 2010 and will end his term in 2017. He has maintained steady development, growth and reconciliation with goals of Rwanda becoming a middle-income country by 2020 and highly emphasizes Rwanda becoming self-reliant. There is no longer a distinction between ethnic groups, and, in fact, categorizing as such is illegal. The government and churches continue to work hard toward forgiveness and reconciliation, but there is still much work to be done.